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James Is Too Much for Westchester

Senior puts controversy aside, scores career-high 52 points to lead national power St. Vincent-St. Mary past Comets, 78-52, in New Jersey.

February 09, 2003|Ben Bolch | Times Staff Writer

TRENTON, N.J. — LeBron James continues to feed off the burden of recent inquiries into his off-court affairs like a piranha unleashed in a public swimming pool.

Shortly after being cleared in an investigation into his new Hummer H2 equipped with three televisions and computer game hookups, the Akron (Ohio) St. Vincent-St. Mary High standout scored 50 points against Mentor (Ohio).

Saturday, three days after a judge temporarily overturned an athletic association's decision to ban him for the rest of his senior season for accepting free athletic jerseys, James topped that mark in eye-popping fashion.

The soon-to-be top pick in the NBA draft blistered Westchester for a career-high 52 points during nationally top-ranked St. Vincent-St. Mary's 78-52 intersectional victory in front of a sellout crowd of 8,500 at Sovereign Bank Arena.

James made his first three shots en route to a 21-for-34 shooting performance and was the only St. Vincent-St. Mary player to score in double figures.

He threw flashy passes, converted six three-point baskets and scored 18 consecutive points for the Fighting Irish during one stretch, including three consecutive high-flying dunks.

The display was so convincing and so complete that it elicited a standing ovation from the decidedly St. Vincent-St. Mary partisan crowd when James left with 2 minutes 30 seconds remaining.

The 6-foot-8 swingman would have single-handedly outscored Westchester had Comet reserve guard Andre Dunn not converted a late three-pointer.

"There was nothing we could do," said forward Trevor Ariza, one of six Westchester players who alternated in a futile attempt to contain James. "We contended his shots, he knocked them down. We double-teamed him, he found the open man."

Said Westchester Coach Ed Azzam: "We could have put three guys on him and he would have hit those shots."

After playing for the first time in 12 days, James said he didn't feel like he had to excel in his return.

"There's no pressure," he said. "I just go out and play my game. I feel so comfortable on the court that it's like a home for us, a getaway."

Westchester (22-3) started on a right note, taking a 6-0 lead after sophomore Marcus Johnson and Ariza followed steals with breakaway dunks.

But then James went to work, putting St. Vincent-St. Mary (15-1) ahead for good, 7-6, after hitting a pull-up three-pointer over the outstretched arms of forward Scott Cutley.

James scored 18 points in the final 5:12 of the first quarter and the Fighting Irish built a 20-14 lead.

Westchester pulled to within 28-24 midway through the second quarter on Jonathan Toliver's three-pointer, but St. Vincent-St. Mary scored the next 13 points and was never threatened again.

The Comets, No. 7 in one national ranking, became tentative and listless as the Fighting Irish began to pull away. The UCLA-bound Ariza finished with 12 points and guard Bobby Brown scored 10. No one else scored in double figures.

"The guys didn't play the way they're capable of playing," Azzam said. "I'm embarrassed, the kids are embarrassed. We showed a complete lack of discipline."

For a while earlier this week, it looked as if Westchester would get to play St. Vincent-St. Mary without its best player.

But Wednesday, a judge temporarily overturned the Ohio High School Athletic Assn.'s decision to bar James from playing after he accepted two jerseys worth a combined $845 from a Cleveland clothing store in exchange for posing for pictures to be hung on the store's walls.

Williams ordered James to sit out one more game as part of a two-game suspension, but St. Vincent-St. Mary officials were allowed to choose which game James would sit out.

School officials picked a Feb. 23 game against Toledo (Ohio) Scott -- the only team on the Fighting Irish's remaining regular-season schedule with a losing record.

James said he feels as if the recent scrutiny, though irritating, might have helped him mature.

"I feel like LeBron James has a bull's-eye on him," he said. "I just have to do the right things and stay focused."

Saturday night's performance wasn't a bad start.

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